World Trust

5 Ways to Avoid Blame and Shame in Diversity Activities

Posted by Valerie Fulton on April 7, 2015


Whenever we interview people engaged in diversity activities, we find that there is a "final straw" that propels them into action. It might be a racial incident that stirred up strong feelings in the community. Or perhaps there were complaints to the human resources department about an insensitive pattern of behavior in the workplace.

Knowing why to take action is the easy part, though. The community is fractured, and there is a need to bring people together 

Figuring out how to act -- now that's a bit more difficult. How do you talk to engage people to talk about race without making them retreat further into their defenses? How are you going to use this opportunity to foster growth and change rather than aggravating tensions? 

Dr. Shakti Butler, the Founder and President of World Trust, has developed a five-step approach to making a diversity workshop effective without evoking the shame, blame, and pain that often result when people are confronted with issues like systemic racism and white privilege.

1. Engage in Community Building

No matter how little time is scheduled for the diversity initiative, always try to begin with an exercise that brings people together. Facilitators at World Trust use yoga exercises, contemplation of a question in dyads, and even song to release inner tension and focus people who come to the workshop feeling distracted by the outside world. By getting people to work together on a project, you promote a sense of belonging that is critical for transformative learning. 

2. Provide a Simple Frame that Explains How Systemic Inequity Functions

The reason discussions about race sometimes get volatile is the whole thing can feel very personal. Whites are quick to go on the defensive, and people of color get re-traumatized by the experience of telling their truth, once again, to folks who make the whole situation about them. 

Providing a frame for the discussion de-personalizes the situation, placing both whites and people of color in the same system of institutionalized racism. It gives them common ground from which they can share their different experience, understanding that no one is a "bad person" but that we all live in a system that privileges one race over another.

3. Offer Equity Learning Benefits to Both Whites and People of Color 

It is important to make sure that both dominant and minority perspectives are expressed. All too often, people of color feel put on the spot, asked to represent racial oppression to white participants, and the experience can cause pain. A better way is to discuss both perspectives in the context of the larger frame. When each side hears the other's perceptions, you've created an ideal climate for transformative learning.

4. Show a Diversity Film to Leverage the Power of Story  

Butler believes so strongly in the power of story that she has produced several diversity videos. The films contain short personal anecdotes told from multiple points of view to illustrate abstract concepts like white privilege and systemic racism. This approach lets the viewer take a more active role than documentary narratives, which encourage people to stay in an observer role. 

"I have found that weaving together numerous personal accounts more authentically informs the complexity of the system of inequity," Butler explains. "By experiencing an abundance of voices, participants may more easily see how their own lived experiences are part of this larger story or system."  

5. Get People Talking

Using clips from a diversity film as a catalyst, the final step is to facilitate dialogue among workshop participants. It can be helpful to remind people that they are not responsible for solving the entire problem of racism in this session -- instead, the goal is just be to explore the situations presented in the film and talk as openly as possible.

When you follow these steps -- building community, providing a frame, and showing stories from multiple points of view -- the discussion that follow can lead to self-examination, insight, and compassionate consideration of other perspectives. "Dialogue allows us to extend our humanity to one another," Butler says. "It opens the way for institutional change that can impact the future."  

World Trust believes that film and facilitated conversation can be powerful catalysts for change. To learn how your institution can schedule a screening of one of our diversity films please contact us.  Our videos help people learn about the system of inequity. To learn more, click below:

Download "5 Hallmarks of Effective Diversity & Inclusion Events" by Shakti Butler, PhD

Topics: Diversity Workshop